When Google Walked

Rage drove the protests last year, but can it bring about lasting change at tech companies?

Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Thursday, October 25

This revolution started, like so many others, with a lot of moral outrage and a little bit of wine. On Thursday, October 25, Claire Stapleton, a product-marketing manager at YouTube, left work around 6 p.m., went home to Brooklyn to put her toddler son to bed, and poured herself a glass of red. Then she opened her computer to check in on the developments of the day. “How Google Protected Andy Rubin, the ‘Father of Android’ ” had been published that morning by the New York Times, and Stapleton had come across it while scrolling through posts on a Google moms’ list. (“It’s like Park Slope Parents but for people who work at Google.”) “I read it immediately,” she says. “It was a bombshell story.”

The article outlined a pattern of sexual misconduct at the company and, damningly, a $90 million payout to Rubin when he was forced out after a credible claim that he had coerced an employee into performing oral sex. It explained how, perhaps because of the tens of billions of dollars of revenue generated by the Android software he had developed, the company had kept Rubin on after finding bondage videos on his work computer, given him a stock grant worth $150 million while the inquiry into his sexual conduct was ongoing, and invested in his start-up once he left the company with a hero’s send-off from Google co-founder Larry Page. It also quoted his ex-wife saying that he had paid women hundreds of thousands of dollars to agree to “ownership relationships.” “You will be happy being taken care of,” Rubin wrote one woman, according to the New York Times. “Being owned is kind of like you are my property, and I can loan you to other people.” (Rubin has disputed some of the charges.)

By lunchtime, the news had spread throughout the New York office. As Google’s new CFO had been tightening belts across the company, “so many of the stories I heard were, ‘I have been fighting for years to get head count for my team or to get a small salary increase or to get to my correct level because I’m a black woman who got hired underlevel and I’m appealing to get to the level I should be at because I have an M.B.A. and every other chump on my team is a level above me,’ you know?” says Stapleton. “And then they pay $90 million to this guy?” (“It was a $90 million sexual-harassment bonus,” one of her co-workers later put it to me pointedly.)

Like many, Stapleton was both “surprised and not surprised” by these revelations. She had begun her career at Google in 2007, the summer after she graduated from college, and her first role had been to organize and write the script for the town-hall-meeting broadcast from the company’s Mountain View headquarters every week, conceived as a way for the founders to make themselves accessible to employees. Stapleton had come to be “a big believer in Google’s culture” because, as she says, “it is sort of all about transparency and openness, and there’s this sense that you’re holding leadership accountable.” On the strength of the town-hall emails she’d been sending companywide for years (“On the internal Memegen, there are a majillion memes of my ridiculous emails”), she was recruited from San Francisco to the New York office in 2012 to work at the Google Creative Lab — where she found herself immersed in the sort of bro culture that she’d never experienced in the “matriarchy” of her previous department. A male freelancer who was brought on at the same time was given multiple projects, while she was told, “Just keep reading up on what we do, and we’ll find something for you eventually.” After months of biding her time, she finally reached out to a colleague for help on how to win over her boss. “And he said, ‘He’s a guy’s guy. He just really likes working with the kind of dude he can get a beer with after work, you know?’ ”

Eighteen months in, Stapleton resorted to reporting the problem to HR with documentation. HR moved her out of the department that very day. She knew that her old boss was angling for a promotion and took comfort in the idea that there would be consequences for the way she’d been treated. “Take a wild guess what happened? Spoiler alert: He got promoted to VP.”

What became clear in the immediate aftermath of the Rubin article was just how many other people had experienced similar wake-up calls. The moms’-group post soon had over a hundred comments, with women sharing their stories of sexism, racism, and harassment. “The article was about executive misconduct,” says Stapleton. “But what came out of it was really about the system — this sense that when people spoke out at something that was unjust going on in the culture, they ended up feeling that they were retaliated against.”

At 3 p.m. that day, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent a companywide email saying that the Times story was “difficult to read,” that 48 people had been fired for sexual harassment in the past two years, and that “we support and respect those who have spoken out.” But if that were true, people reasoned, why was Richard DeVaul, an executive who had been named in the Times article, still employed by Google? By evening, it was clear that the week’s town hall would have to address the many allegations. “It was so inadequate, I can’t even tell you,” Stapleton says now. Google founders “Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] made remarks. They were apologetic in tone. But Larry didn’t want to discuss any specifics — it was just, ‘We care, and let’s let it blow over.’ Sergey was making jokes, sort of trying to lighten the mood. It was incredibly gauche.”

Especially since many of Google’s leaders had a history of hooking up with subordinates. Brin himself had had a highly public affair with a 20-something member of his team, and Page had dated Marissa Mayer when she’d worked at the company. “And there are a million other stories like that, I’ll tell you,” says Stapleton, who was aghast that, after these initial comments, the founders proceeded with business as usual: a product presentation for Google photos.

“So, you know, now my glass of wine has sunk in, and the buzz is peaking,” Stapleton continues. “I wonder how we can use our collective leverage … If we banded together, what could we do?” she typed to the moms’ group. “A walkout, a strike, an open letter to Sundar? Google women (and allies) are REALLY rage-fueled right now, and I wonder how we can harness that to force some real change …” At 7:58 p.m., she pressed send.

Friday, October 26

Tech has never been a hotbed of activism, in part because of the industry’s self-perception. As Silicon Valley companies grew, the garage-band culture of the early days morphed into a top-down message that they were somehow different from other corporations, that their founders were not businesspeople at all but rather benevolent visionaries, changing the world for the better from the inside out. The message sounded great. It didn’t scale.

“ ‘Don’t be evil’ came out of that type of idealism, because they were getting rich without having to, right?” says Meredith Whittaker, the founder and head of Google’s Open Research Group in New York, an expert on the ethics of artificial intelligence, and someone who has spoken out about the dangers inherent in combining a corporate mentality with the incredible powers of AI. But now, she continues, “to maintain this continual growth that is demanded of the modern shareholder-driven corporation requires crossing those red lines increasingly.”

And employees have taken notice. On the heels of a memo published in 2017 by Google engineer James Damore — in which he blamed gender discrepancies at the company on “personality differences” — and against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement and protests provoked by the Trump administration, the company has seen its staff (and prospective employees) become more and more activated, with calls to tie executive compensation to company diversity and to give benefits to contract workers. In May, about a dozen employees resigned in protest of Project Maven, a secretive Google partnership with the Department of Defense to provide AI for drones. An internal petition signed by thousands of workers — who rejected participating in “the business of war” — demanded that Google back out. Amnesty International denounced the contract; Stanford students declared that they wouldn’t take interviews at Google with the contract in place; and in June, the company announced that its work with the Pentagon would not be renewed. (A similar effort is currently under way to protest Project Dragonfly, which is developing a Chinese version of Google that would enable censorship.) When it came to Rubin’s payout, says one employee, “I think it’s the $90 million straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Still, by the end of the day on Friday, the “outrage that had probably been percolating for a while” was continuing, but it didn’t seem to have much direction, says Stapleton, who came to the realization that “someone needed to raise their hand and just freaking do something at this point.” So, with her husband on baby duty at home, she created a Google group, womens-walk@, and sent an invitation to the moms’ group. “I think the description copy was ‘the steering committee for collective action or something.’ It was incredibly vague.”

Google-walkout organizers (clockwise from top-left): Celie O’Neil-Hart, Amr Gaber, Erica Anderson, Tanuja Gupta, Meredith Whittaker, Stephanie Parker, and Claire Stapleton. Photo: Bobby Doherty for New York Magazine/Courtesy of the subjects

Saturday, October 27

The next morning when Stapleton opened her computer, the Women’s Walk group had over 200 members. At 6:46 a.m. (“toddler mom productivity hour”), she sent her first group message with the subject line “hello friends :).” It began “*rolls up sleeves* welcome to ground zero of the google women’s walkout / a day without women (naming/branding tbd).” She then asked people to share why they’d joined the group, what they hoped their collective action could accomplish, and when they should try to pull it off (“giving us enough time to make this as global, inclusive, and big as we can while also capitalizing on the rage-buzz-momentum we have”).

It was soon clear that people took to the idea of a walkout and its attention-grabbing optics. The polite methods tech companies usually resorted to — petitions and open letters, which had also been put to use at places like Amazon and Microsoft — were fine for specific requests, but, says Whittaker, “we were no longer in a situation where we were debating the merits of a certain claim. It was right in front of us, this steaming pile of garbage.” And just as the gig economy had pushed job uncertainty further and further up the corporate food chain, it made sense that white-collar workers would start to borrow the blue-collar union tactics of old. Further, Stapleton realized that her privileged, white-collar position in an industry that prided itself on being forward-thinking gave her the latitude to stick her neck out where many others couldn’t. And where Google went, perhaps others would follow.

The first person to respond was a woman from Mountain View who proposed a list of demands. Celie O’Neil-Hart, a trust-and-transparency lead who worked in the San Bruno office, quickly created a document of what was being proposed on the thread, which soon had hundreds of people weighing in. Some called for upper management to step down; others demanded that the company donate $90 million to survivors of sexual assault or underpaid minority workers. As for the walkout, could they possibly pull something together before the midterms?

Sunday, October 28

“I heard about it on Sunday night,” says Stephanie Parker, a policy specialist in trust and safety in the San Bruno office and a co-lead of black@YouTube. “I got a text from a friend on the YouTube marketing team saying, ‘Girl, so are you walking out?’ in a very casual way. She assumed that I already knew.”

Parker had a reputation of sorts as an activist within Google. In the wake of the Damore scandal, she had been one of the first people to sign an employee petition condemning the harassment of minority advocates by their co-workers. She was sensitive to issues of racial injustice within the company, in part because she felt that she had been racially profiled when she was recruited. Despite undergraduate and master’s degrees from Stanford, Parker had been asked, “How do you feel about this entry-level six-month-contract position in the recruiting team?” With the help of someone else, Parker eventually landed a full-time position at YouTube, but once she started the job, the original recruiter invited her to a party for “all the girls I’ve helped.” When Parker arrived, the woman, who is white, was sitting at the head of a long table lined exclusively with young black women — all of whom worked in HR or recruiting, many with contract roles. “They all felt trapped,” says Parker, “working these thankless jobs.”

Parker didn’t hesitate to join the walkout group, or to loop in Amr Gaber, a San Francisco software engineer who had done activist work outside the company and who had been “underleveled” by Google, hired for a position that he was told was not entry level but that turned out to be just a step above interns and part-timers. Gaber told Parker, “There’s a 50-50 chance this blows up.”

Monday, October 29

On Monday morning, Stapleton woke up and put on her THE FUTURE IS FEMALE shirt, “like Joan of Arc or something.” By the time she got to her desk at work, the walkout group had more than 1,000 members.

But there was still the matter of what, when, and where the walkout would actually be. That day, BuzzFeed had leaked a story that 200 Google engineers were planning a protest “expected to happen on Thursday.” That date was a surprise to many in the group, but there was a sense that now a challenge had been set. The time that each office should walk out was chosen as 11:10, simply for its poetic resonance with the date and because there was no one time that would be feasible for every office. Stapleton suggested they call the walkout #MeGoo, “which,” she says with a laugh, “no one liked.”

In fact, it wasn’t even necessarily accurate at that point. In the welling up of outrage — from men as well as women — it became clear that people felt that sexual abuse and harassment were symptoms of larger structural problems surrounding discrimination of all kinds and that it would be pointless to address one without tackling them all.

Parker was one of the first to raise the issue of temps, vendors, and contractors, or TVCs, a shadow group — making up more than half of Google’s workforce — who are more likely to be people of color and who are not entitled to the benefits of Google employment, from health insurance and paid leave to invitations to Google events and the right to list Google on their résumé. When there was a shooting at a YouTube campus last year, the TVCs weren’t even sent safety updates. Nor do they have access to internal Google groups, like the one for the walkout. “They can’t just click to join,” explains Parker. “So I started collecting TVC emails and trying to direct-add them myself.”

In the creation of this “subclass,” organizers saw all the ways in which management not only kept workers down but also divided them against one another. Soon, the walkout was taking on a proletarian tone. “It’s an open power struggle. It’s not a discussion or a debate,” Gaber explains. “We’re not trying to change [executives’] minds. Whether they’re good people or bad people is irrelevant. They’re in a position of power that has to preserve itself.”

But how, exactly, could the walkout work to rectify that power imbalance? Gaber, Whittaker, and O’Neil-Hart began culling the growing list of demands. Parker started contacting people she knew in international offices and was soon fielding emails about the legality of protesting. “I was like, ‘Oh, dang, this escalated quickly.’ ”

It was not lost on the organizers that the speed with which things came together was largely owed to the tools Google had created: docs, groups, hangouts, calendars, and an internal Google site. Nor was there any illusion that their activities would escape the notice of management. “[We] knew it was inevitable,” Stapleton tells me. “Our Google group was completely open for anyone, and that first weekend, a bunch of comms and HR people joined, so anything we planned was naturally going to be reported back.”

Most of the organizers were fine with that, believing that Google’s outspoken office culture and emphasis on constructive feedback — as well as the threat of bad press — protected them from any kind of serious retribution. O’Neil-Hart wasn’t so sure. “It kind of hit me,” she says. “I came home that night and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is happening.’ ”

Tuesday, October 30

On Tuesday morning, Erica Anderson, a head of news ecosystems at the New York Google News Lab, opened her email to a walkout invitation from Tanuja Gupta, a program manager also in New York. Anderson had been hired underlevel, and the fact that she’d been passed up for promotion despite getting a “superb” rating in her review did not sit well. “I’m a lesbian,” she says. “I don’t assimilate to the boys’ club.” She volunteered to help with the press strategy, including developing resources for how employees should talk to the press if approached. By mid-morning, Gupta was building an internal walkout website, which included a how-to guide for employees around the world to use in staging their own.

Meanwhile, the walkout had come to the attention of the leaders of Employee Resource Groups — corporate-sponsored committees that advocate for different factions within the company — like the Black Googlers Network, the Women@ network, and the Hispanic Googlers Network.

Now that the walkout was picking up steam, these leaders wanted a seat at the table. Gaber, for one, had his reservations. Yes, it was crucially important to include the viewpoints of minorities, but the groups themselves were “corporate organs,” he explains. “They meet regularly with one of the execs. They have the exec’s ear and the exec has their ears, so they’re super-hesitant to openly defy them.”

They also hadn’t seemed to have accomplished much. Women still made up only 31 percent of Google’s full-time workforce. In the U.S., blacks and Hispanics composed 2.5 percent and 3.6 percent, respectively — and had the highest attrition rates. According to Google’s own 2018 diversity report, the share of women, black, and Latinx workers had increased just 0.1 percent year over year. Using a formula that it declined to make public, Google had maintained that pay inequity was negligible despite an investigation by the Department of Labor that found plenty of pay disparity by gender across the company. The data on minority representation was so deplorable that lawmakers like Maxine Waters had threatened to intervene. “There’s so much rhetoric around diversity, so much PR touting their commitments, and so much emphasis on the failed-pipeline model,” says Whittaker. “I would love to see a spreadsheet of how much money has funded diversity programs. I would say it’s probably, like, an nth of $90 million.”

Still, even if the ERG groups were essentially, as Gaber argued, a corporate strategy to funnel anger and energy into a bureaucratic dead end while giving the appearance of inclusivity, it was useful to have the input of people who had long been thinking about these issues within the company — particularly when it came to broadening the scope of the demands. In a meeting with organizers, the co-lead of the Black Googlers Network had proposed what came to be the most controversial demand: that the chief diversity officer report directly to the CEO rather than HR. To some, this seemed like a consolidation of power; to others, it was a necessary step in achieving real diversity.

Meanwhile, management “knew that people were not happy,” says Anderson. “So that afternoon the vice-presidents were sent on this listening tour where they were encouraged to have conversations with their teams … ‘Do you think sexual harassment has been taken seriously at Google? Do you guys feel this is a safe culture?’ ” In Anderson’s team’s meeting, a marketing VP suggested that it would be holding people to an impossible standard to have a zero-tolerance policy on sexual misconduct in the workplace.
Anderson pushed back. “I said, ‘I guarantee we can find people qualified to work at Google who won’t sexually harass their colleagues.’ ” She felt some vindication when she learned that Richard DeVaul had resigned from Google that day, leaving without an exit package.

That night, CEO Sundar Pichai sent an email to the company saying, “One thing that’s become clear to me is that our apology didn’t come through, and it wasn’t enough.” At the end, he acknowledged “the activities planned for Thursday” and assured employees that Eileen Naughton, the head of HR, would make sure “you have the support you need.” Naughton followed up with an email to managers for guidelines on how to talk to employees about the walkout. “I think they were trying to come out in front of it,” says Stapleton. “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

Wednesday, October 31

But the walkout organizers didn’t necessarily want them to join. When the Women@ERG leadership reached out to them on Wednesday to set up a meeting with some of the female executives, the invitation was viewed skeptically. The organizers decided to put them off. As Whittaker later put it, “This is not your party. This is your problem.”

By midday, Anderson had recruited women in the Google Creative Lab to begin making signs — WORKERS’ RIGHTS ARE WOMEN’S RIGHTS; TIME’S UP TECH — while Whittaker and O’Neil-Hart had started drafting a speech that could be read at every rally, from Montreal to Manila. Late that night, the demands were finalized and sent to the press for publication early the next morning: the right for victims of harassment or discrimination to sue the company; pay equity and honest data reporting about who gets paid what; a clear policy as to what happens in cases of sexual harassment; and the appointment of an employee representative to the board, along with the promotion of the CDO, which was ultimately deemed to be the sort of shake-up that was needed.

At 9:10 p.m. EST, the offices in Japan began walking out, and the organizers watched as images from Asia started coming in. “Singapore did almost like a sit-in. I think that photo was the first one,” says Gupta, who had volunteered to create a document compiling stories people had submitted to be read at the rallies. Every time she thought she was done, more stories had been submitted. It was clear that participation might be massive.

Thursday, November 1

When Anderson awoke at 6:30, the encrypted Signal chat she’d had going with the other organizers was “already off the hook.” She ate breakfast and “tried to have a somewhat normal morning,” before heading into the office with a bag of apple-cider doughnuts her girlfriend had given her for good luck. By 10 a.m., she was at 14th Street Park at 15th Street and Tenth Avenue, the location near the Google office that the organizers had selected as a destination for the protest. After the list of demands went live, “we started getting a mad amount of inbounds from global press.” Anderson passed out doughnuts and press calls. “I was just like, ‘Meredith, can you do a phoner with AP?’ and I hand her the phone, and then I’m like, ‘Claire, will you do a phoner with NPR?’ and I use her phone to call.”

Shortly after 11 a.m., Googlers began entering the park. Then more came. Then more. Eventually, the park got so full that people just spilled onto Tenth Avenue. All told, more than 3,000 people from the New York office walked out.

That afternoon, at a Dos Caminos near their office, the New York organizers set up a “command-and-control station.” They drank margaritas and watched as the walkout rolled across the country: Chicago and Austin; then Colorado; then Seattle and down to Mountain View, where employee Nancy Zheng’s story of being drugged at a Google event brought some in the crowd to tears.

By the end of the day, 20,000 employees in Google offices in 50 cities had participated. The wait to see how Google would respond began.

Wednesday, November 7

Almost a week later, an email went out to the company explaining that at 9:30 a.m. PST the following day, there would be a town hall to address the walkout. The late notice seemed calculated, as did the format. Temps, vendors, and contractors were not invited, even though the demands had specifically asked that TVCs not be excluded. “Knowing that, I was like, ‘Okay, they’re not going to give much at this point in the operation,’ ” says Gupta. “I think I knew that going in.”

The next day, the morning of the town-hall meeting, Google published a document titled “Our Commitments and Actions.” In it, management outlined a number of steps the company would take to ostensibly meet the demands. The ones related to sexual harassment, in particular, were largely addressed: There would be an end to forced arbitration in those cases, the process would be revamped, the number of cases and their outcomes would be published annually, and employees could bring a colleague with them when reporting harassment or participating in an investigation. Managers were also tasked with limiting alcohol consumption at work events, and all employees, including management, would be required to complete sexual-harassment training.

Conspicuously absent were changes on discrimination, pay inequity, underleveling, and the exclusion of TVCs — issues related specifically to minority groups at Google. Only lip service was paid: Google would “recommit to … creating a more inclusive culture.”

With only minutes to go before the town hall, Gupta, Gaber, and Whittaker began writing out questions for people from the Google group list to ask if they were called upon. The local organizer of the walkout in Mountain View, where the town hall took place, got in the room early enough to reserve the first two rows, which faced the two rows of tall chairs in which the executives sat as they laid out their plan.

In the Q&A that followed, people pushed back. Why would forced arbitration still be required for cases of discrimination? And why was the company touting sexual-harassment training when that hadn’t worked in the past — “I’m pretty sure Andy Rubin took the training,” one engineer said.

“People were talking about walking out of the room during it,” says Stapleton. “People were heckling.”

Immediately after the town hall, the organizers held a meeting to try to come up with a response. Anderson felt that they shouldn’t take for granted the fact that they’d gotten some of what they had asked for. “And then I go into this meeting, and Tanuja and a few other women of color were in there, and they were like, ‘They erased everything that had to do with systemic racism.’ And I just sat back and was like, ‘Oh fuck, wow. This isn’t over. This is just getting started.’ ”

Over the course of the next few hours, the organizers drafted a press release pointing out how the company’s response to their demands had been “whitewashed” and calling the situation a “modern Jim Crow class system.” The release quoted only women of color. “We wanted to make sure that the story wasn’t, ‘Google responds to all the demands and makes this heroic show of commitment to workers,’ ” says Gupta. “We wanted to point out this is step 1. This is step 1A.”

But as the walkout puts in sharp relief, it remains an open question whether massive corporations will ever pay more than lip service to their employees’ principles. Which raises another question: Just how much power do even the most privileged workers have? Thus far, the tech revolution has been slow and bloodless, if not entirely toothless. Facebook ended forced arbitration in cases of sexual harassment on November 9, one day after Google. Airbnb, eBay, and Square followed suit several days later. It is proof that Google could be a change agent, but the victory is a small one. “The removal of forced arbitration for sexual harassment puts us on par with Uber,” Gaber points out. “Not exactly a leader in sexual-harassment issues. And it’s also the cheapest thing, the most minor thing they could’ve done.” He continues, “I have no expectation whatsoever that they might have read the demands and then suddenly changed their minds about everything. No, I knew they were going to come in and do the best they could to convince people that everything is taken care of, but do it in the way that would take the least amount of effort and money and real action.”

That doesn’t mean the organizers have given up. The walkout Google group is still active, and the core organizers continue to meet, sometimes in person, but often remotely. In January, the newly formed Googlers for Ending Forced Arbitration launched a social-media campaign only five days after shareholders filed a lawsuit against Google’s parent company, Alphabet, for a breach of fiduciary duty in doling out large exit packages to those credibly accused of sexual misconduct — if the court of public opinion couldn’t get Google’s attention, perhaps actual court could.

Still, as Stapleton tells me in late January, “we’re almost three months out from the walkout and exactly zero of the five demands have been met. We all acknowledge that the issues raised by the walkout are intractable societal problems and that it’s going to be really hard to actually move the needle on this stuff, but the thing that’s so disheartening about it is just the utter lack of imagination that Google has shown in solving these problems.” Frustration over this has led to several high-profile departures, including that of engineer and trans activist Liz Fong-Jones and Memegen creator Colin McMillen. Erica Anderson also left the company in January. “There’s a term in tech called ‘minimum viable product,’ ” she explains, sighing. “It’s like, ‘What’s the least amount we can do in this case to reduce the amount of risk we’re going to take on?’ I think that’s what they did.”

And it’s possible that it’s all they may ever do. Google declined to comment on the record for this story, but a representative assured me that the company was working behind the scenes on how to improve Google as a workplace and that it supported the activism of its workers fully. She failed to mention that a mere three weeks after the walkout, Google filed with the National Labor Relations Board to restrict employees’ ability to use work email to organize — to essentially cut organizing off at the knees. “How pernicious is that?” asks Stapleton the last time we talk. “The walkout had some sort of idealism about trying to push the industry forward, other companies forward, and the idea that Google’s retribution would be to try to make it harder for employees everywhere to organize? It’s just an unsettling thought.” By now it’s clear that the tools of tech could surely start a revolution. Or stop one.

*This article appears in the February 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Can the Google Walkout Bring About Change at Tech Companies?